Why can’t things just ‘be’?

While browsing Andrew Gelman’s recent posts I also came across this gem, which reinforces my priors in every possible way. So of course I loved it! He writes:

More and more I feel like economic reporting is based on crude principles of adding up “good news” and “bad news.” Sometimes this makes sense: by almost any measure, an unemployment rate of 10% is bad news compared to an unemployment rate of 5%. Other times, though, the good/bad news framework seems so tangled.

Who’s supposed to be “concerned” [about the drop in the price of Facebook shares]? … I just don’t get it. Why should I care? If the shares underperform the market, people can buy a piece of Facebook for less. That’s fine too, no?

I think Gelman has put his finger right on the problem: news needs to be normatively charged to be worthwhile. A drop in share prices is good for some people and bad for others, but it probably doesn’t involve a loss of social welfare. Yet, to be a good news story, it needs to have a normative dimension with a hero and a baddie. I’m not blaming the reporters for that; it’s just human nature to want it. Unfortunately, it makes the job of reporting on economics particularly difficult.

In fact it explains why economists are constantly accused of being unable to reach a conclusion. It’s not because they don’t understand what’s going on: it’s because they attempt to describe the costs and the benefits of policies, which usually accrue to different groups. Few policies are unambiguously good or bad, so almost any economist’s commentary provides ammunition for both sides of the normative debate.